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Each egg provides unique canvas for pysanky artist

| Monday, March 14, 2005

Julia Urdenis is passionate about egg-shaped art.

For about 35 years, the 67-year-old Hungarian artist has practiced pysanky, a style of Ukrainian egg decorating that originated more than 2000 years ago.

At age 13, Urdenis came to America with her family and eventually made a home in Bentleyville.

The inside of her house resembles an art gallery, with glass cases of her pysanky eggs found in just about every room.

Urdenis said she simply cannot part with the coveted creations she proudly displays for guests.

Traditionally, pysanky eggs are given as gifts to convey good will and friendship and to symbolize the renewal of life and new beginnings associated with spring.

In creating pysanky eggs, Urdenis first uses a kistka, a tool that resembles an ink fountain pen.

She scrapes the metal tip of the kistka on a disc of beeswax, heats it with a blessed candle and draws a design on the egg.

The wax placed on the egg protects the areas that will remain white. The egg is then dipped in a light-colored dye, usually yellow.

More wax is applied to areas of the egg intended to stay yellow.

Then the egg subsequently is dipped in a darker dye.

The process is repeated many times, depending on how many colors are to be used.

Finally, the entire egg is heated and the wax is wiped away to reveal the completed design, a multi-colored work of art with many intricate designs.

After the egg is painted, Urdenis removes the egg white and yolk. Varnish is applied to the shell to give it a lasting shine.

While the concept of creating pysanky is simple, mastering the technique takes years, Urdenis said.

But there is much more to it than simply creating a visually appealing egg.

Some of the symbols hold special meanings.

"Let's say your neighbor had a poor harvest; you put some wheat on it to wish him luck," Urdenis said. "Say you know a couple that had been infertile. Then you put a rooster on it so they do become fertile. Butterflies mean resurrection."

Pysanky eggs are most popular during the Easter season.

Urdenis said her love for creating the masterpieces is constant and sometimes approaches obsession.

"I won't go to bed tonight until I finish that egg," she said of one project on her work table.

The effort and care Urdenis invests in her egg creations is evident.

The pysanky perfectionist spends 15 to 20 hours on each egg.

And when one breaks?

"You cry. Then you make scrambled eggs," Urdenis said with a smile.

The artist said the process demands precision, patience and a steady hand, attributes she learned as a painter in a family of artists.

"It's in my blood, so to speak," she said.

While Urdenis sometimes tries to duplicate her designs, no two eggs come out exactly the same because the dyes set differently each time.

Revealing the finished product is always a surprise for Urdenis.

For years, she has sold her decorated eggs.

The proceeds help restock her pysanky materials and she donates the remainder of the profit to her church, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Belle Vernon.

"My husband is president of the church council, so I've got to do something for the church or he'll kill me," Urdenis said jokingly. "I think that's my way of contributing."

Some of Urdenis' eggs represent many ethnicities and have become collectors' favorites.

She said her Irish-themed eggs, which feature shamrock designs, are her best sellers.

To Urdenis, the shape of an egg provides a unique and challenging canvas.

"The egg dictates it to me," she said of her designs. "I love the art form. It is intertwined with tradition."

Urdenis recognizes the history behind pysanky and has made the creative process her own precious art form.

The next step for her is to teach the discipline to children.

"They say that as long as someone is making pysanky, the world will never end," Urdenis said.

To purchase pysanky eggs, call (724) 239-3764.

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